Jules Woodson worships most Sundays at Grace Lutheran Church. She sings hymns. She listens to sermons delivered by Pastor Michael Tassler. She reflects on the storms of her life.
And she praises God.
In her teens, she suffered through a sexual ordeal at her church in the suburbs of Houston. For decades, she struggled with depression and anxiety.
But, she says, God never left her side and remains with her as she crusades to cleanse America’s troubled Protestant movement.
Woodson has resided at the center of the #churchtoo movement since she revealed in a Jan. 5, 2018, blog a 20-year-old sexual assault involving her youth minister, Andy Savage. She was 17 and he was 22 when she got into his car for a ride home after a Southern Baptist church event.
But Savage did not drive her home. He drove her to a lonely dark road.
“He turned the headlights off,” Woodson wrote in an abuse survivors’ blog. Then he asked her to perform oral sex. “I was scared and embarrassed, but I did it. I remember feeling that this must mean that Andy loved me.”
Church leaders did not inform police of Savage’s crime or tell congregation members specifics about the assault. Savage was told to depart the church, but the incident did not hinder his career.
On Jan. 5, 2018, he was serving as a pastor at Highpoint, a megachurch in Memphis, Tenn. He was raising five children with his wife. He had just delivered a book, “The Ridiculously Good Marriage,” to a publisher.
After Woodson’s blog post, Savage read a statement at Highpoint’s Sunday morning service. He expressed regret, in his way. “A so-called apology,” Woodson says.
Congregants reacted to his confession with a standing ovation. Highpoint leaders had been told about the assault on the dark road and hired him anyway. When Woodson watched video of Savage’s surreal confession/performance, she wept.
But Savage could not halt the tidal wave of scorn. He resigned four months later.
Woodson sits at the dining table of her home in south Colorado Springs where she lives with her three daughters. She talks in a steady voice that retains a hint of Texas twang.
“It is really unbelievable,” she says. “When I went public, I had no idea. I thought 100 people might read my story, but if it helped just one it was worth it for me. I had no idea my story would be plastered all over national and international headlines.
“I wasn’t prepared for that, though I felt almost immediate relief and freedom that what happened to me was no longer my dirty little secret that I hid from everybody. Now the truth is out there and the guilt and the shame go back to my abuser.
“It’s not on me anymore.”
She works with For Such A Time As This, an organization that seeks change in the Southern Baptist movement. FSATAT demands a database be established to reveal pastors who have been credibly accused or convicted of sexual abuse. Also, the FSATAT seeks mandatory training for all clergy on recognizing and reporting sexual crimes.
Woodson spoke June 11 outside the Southern Baptist convention in Birmingham, Ala. Officials would not allow FSATA speakers inside the convention.
“I am not your enemy, fighting you. I am a Christian woman crying, ‘Don’t you hear me?’ ” she said.
She is cautiously optimistic. She hears encouraging words from church officials, but she’s heard encouraging words before.
She wants action. Words, she says, are not sufficient.
Her life has been hectic the past 18 months. She’s been attacked online. She’s lost much of her privacy.
But she feels energized, too. Her struggles have strengthened her faith. She walks boldly with God at her side.
“You know, I wouldn’t say it’s been easy. I’ve struggled with God and you know I had a lot of anger that I needed to deal with. A lot of anger and guilt and shame and a lot of negative emotions.
“But through it all … God never left me. I just feel so blessed. He promises us that He’ll never desert us and He hasn’t. Feeling that, knowing that, has only strengthened my faith in the last year and a half.”
She pauses and looks around the room.
“I do believe that He is cleaning the church. I do believe that. My faith isn’t in the Southern Baptist Convention doing the right thing. My faith is in God being in charge.”